David Zarembka’s Memorable Writings: A Sampler

Besides his work and example, Friend David Zarembka also left a valuable and underestimated resource of writings for Friends and others.  We’ll sample that legacy here, and point to where more can be found.Zarembka -Book Cover

Besides some personal contact, I learned most about Dave from his book A Peace of Africa. Here’s part of that context from my review:

In the US, the career track for “development work” is pretty well laid out: it starts with a degree from a “quality” college. Season that with a bit of “on the ground” foreign experience (the Peace Corps will do). From there, snag a slot at a NGO (nongovernmental organization), hang on and climb the ladder, through tours overseas alternating with stints in the US, especially in or near Washington DC or New York City. Rinse and repeat until retirement.

The pay is good (on the higher rungs, very good), and with advancement the prospects even better: executive status, control over a big-budget, slick PR, professional fundraising. And lots of travel to great hotels in exotic locations.

This cozy world was spoofed by one of its own in a 1976 piece of doggerel called “The Development Set.” A few lines:

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set . . . .

The Development Set is bright and noble
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
We damn multi-national corporations;
Injustice seems easy to protest
In such seething hotbeds of social rest . . . .
(Full text here)

From this angle, David Zarembka started out right: he went to Harvard, took time off to teach refugees in Tanzania, and returned to Africa after graduation with the Peace Corps. There followed a move to Pittsburgh and a graduate degree in international development. So far, so good.

But then something, or maybe many things) happened which pulled him in another direction. For one, he early on decided to have nothing to do with war, and registered as a conscientious objector to the military draft. Then, at Harvard, he wandered into Cambridge Friends Meeting, and took to Quakerism at once. “From that first meeting,” he writes, “I have never looked elsewhere as I had found my spiritual home.” (xvii)

But if religion was settled, not much else was.  He began a PhD program, but didn’t finish; through the 1970s and 1980s, Zarembka was involved in a number of  local projects around Pittsburgh and some other cities. There was a marriage to a Kenyan woman, two kids, a divorce, and ultimately a move to the Washington DC suburbs.

Zarembka doesn’t say much about these years; but as a fellow member of the 1960s generation, your reviewer can make out a pattern: the Establishment path didn’t work out, or perhaps didn’t seem right; maybe it was something about all the wars, and so much money and waste, even in so-called charity? But with his interests, if Zarembka was not to join “The Development Set,” what then?  If one wasn’t wealthy (and he wasn’t), was it still possible to pay the bills, support one’s kids, and yet maintain any of the burning idealism of the intense earlier years? (For a great many onetime 1960s dropouts and rebels who lacked a trust fund, this was a hard question to face; been there, done that.)

Zarembka’s answer was a definite yes; definite, but not immediate. In fact, the ultimate answer did not take shape for more than twenty years. An interim solution was to pick up a hammer:

“In 1986, when I was out of work, I started helping some friends repair houses. . . .

I would stand up in Quaker meeting after worship and say, ‘Who needs to have their house fixed?’ From then on, I would have enough work to fill my availability. I had learned to live frugally, and . . . more important for me was that it gave me a lot of flexibility to pursue peace and justice issues.” (162)

One such issue was peacemaking in the war-torn “Great Lakes” region of East Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya. And in the late 1990s, concern, experience and talent finally came together: Zarembka helped launch the “Africa Great Lakes Initiative,” (AGLI) and became its Coordinator. About this time he met his second wife, Gladys Kamonya from western Kenya, at Bethesda Meeting in Maryland. After their marriage in 1999 this peace concern moved to center stage. By 2005, the couple had gathered their resources and built a house in Lukamanda in western Kenya. He has lived and pursued his ministry of peace work there ever since [til his passing this month]. . . .


What was behind this trajectory? Personality, of course. But he had also found a favorable environment among Friends: leadings are to be discerned and followed, even without knowing where they might end up. He talked more about this in his essay, “My Theology of Peacemaking”, in Quaker Theology, #18, Fall-Winter 2011:

When I was a boy and went to Sunday school, I was told the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho where his army walked around the city for seven days and then blew their trumpets and the walls fell down. I remember drawing a picture of Joshua, his soldiers with trumpets, and the falling walls. As I grew up I thought this might be a nice example of a non-violent method of warfare. It was only when I was an adult that I read the following verse of Joshua 6:21: 21

They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”

In other words, Joshua committed genocide and these days would be in front of the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide.

Although revenge and retaliation are still an accepted concept in the international community, for instance, the 1998 Clinton bombing of a factory in Sudan in retaliation for the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, I do not think this is the way to a more peaceful world.

When Laura Shipler Chico finished a twenty month tour in Rwanda as a volunteer with the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), she wrote the following passage in a report:

Is it the Quaker notion that there is that of God in each of us that gives the Friends here such gall? Is it that unwavering hope that even a man who has butchered and hated and thieved can be redeemed? Or is it simply a thirst that comes out of raw hurt, to find each other again? Whatever it is, Rwandan Evangelical Friends, through Friends Peace House, are doing something that very few other groups in Rwanda have tried. They are bringing killers and survivors together. They are inviting them to sit down and look each other in the eye.

Venancie is a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In 2007 she attended a Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC – pronounced HE-rock) workshop. Before the workshop, she said that she didn’t think she could ever forgive the killers. The workshop was also attended by the Hutu man whom she witnessed killing her two brothers and younger sister. He had just been released from prison.

On the third day of the workshop, there is a trust walk done in pairs.  One person is blindfolded and the other leads the “blind” person around; then they switch places. Here is what Venancie said when she was, by chance, paired up with the man who killed her siblings:

“During the trust walk, the person who killed my family was my partner. I was shaking because my partner was a known killer and very strong. I thought he might throw me down. But he also had fear and he took me gently, kindly. I asked, “Will you lead me in peace?” After the trust walk with him, I felt it was not good to stay in my grief and had no fear against him.”

Bethany Mahler, a master’s student from the School for International Training, attended this workshop and wrote:

“When you come from a place of comfort and security, where there was always someone to tuck you in at night, trust is easily built because there is no reason not to trust. In Rwanda, there is every reason not to trust. To behold a shy, widowed woman close her eyes and offer her hand to the man that destroyed her once-happy life was singularly beautiful. This small movement, this slight touch was everything. You imagine there is that kind of strength and benevolence in the world, but you rarely get to witness it. . . .” (Full text of this essay is online.)

David was an American, who devoted much of his career to work (ministry) in Africa. He summed up much of this ministry in his excellent book, A Peace of Africa. There he also offered some trenchant, plain-spoken feedback about international NGOs and international “service work” for well-intentioned Euro-American readers, particularly his adopted homeland. Here is part of a review in Quaker Theology:

“Kenya is noted for being one of the more corrupt countries in the world,” he notes. But he also rightly points out that this shoe also fits on the other foot: major companies and banks in rich nations, definitely including North America, abet and profit from this pervasive corruption; further, the US, particularly in our recent wars, has tolerated corruption on a scale all but unimaginable in previous human history. (282)

But for him, its pervasiveness is no excuse. He stoutly rejects the common assumption “that because corruption is so common, it must be tolerated.”(282) Still, few of his likely readers will have much influence on multinational corporations who pass out multi-million dollar bribes to their African clients. Unfortunately, the attitudes and behaviors modeled at the elite level with millions of dollars at stake filter down to projects and groups that we smaller fry do interact directly with (and donate to), NGOs and even Quaker charitable and development programs.

In Kenya, corruption, thievery, bribes and embezzlement have many slang names: chai (tea), soda, kitu kidogo (a little something). By whatever name, Zarembka’s judgement on it is equally plain:

In the years I have lived in Africa . . . I have opposed this whenever I have seen it. On at least two occasions, people who I was accusing of embezzlement threatened to kill me. I have received numerous nasty emails. I  have been called names – bully, CIA agent, “big brother” are some of them. Yet those Africans who oppose those embezzling funds have always been supportive of my stance and this has led to a strong following. (293)

Unfortunately, widespread embezzlement and theft of funds have been endemic for many years in too many of the US-supported Quaker mission projects in Africa, and many US Quaker sponsors have chronically winked at, covered up, made excuses for, or otherwise enabled this corruption. One mission executive there told this reviewer that much of this Friend’s work time was spent, not on the program, but on ensuring that the program’s limited budget was not looted. A handful of American Friends have raised cain about this, in yearly meetings and elsewhere, and the Quaker agencies have made some response; but the problem, and habits of denial  continue. Zarembka’s counsel to US Quaker donors is detailed and straightforward. His bottom line:

“When theft, misuse, wastage, or unacceptable accounting is encountered, the donor must pursue these problems with the same diligence they would use for a similar case in their home country. Corruption cannot be excused under any rationale. . . . In short, fiscal responsibility should be a top priority for anyone sending funds to programs in Africa.” (295)

Charitable corruption is not confined to Quakers or their small-scale projects. Many internationally-known NGOs there have much dirt (and blood) on their corporate hands also, and they come in for a fierce scolding by Zarembka, who devotes a whole chapter to the subject. As AGLI developed outside the world of “The Development Set,” he feels no need to protect their image.

Indeed, Zarembka waxes more caustic than poetic in his observations about the large NGOs and their programs in African countries around him: “While . . . (NGOs) often have stellar reputations in the US and Europe, many of them are not well-regarded in Africa. Many Africans have concluded that the billions of dollars donated for their benefit are, instead, eaten up by the NGOs themselves through overhead and greed.” (259)

He is not alone in this dim estimate. In 2010 New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch penned a searing account of ways in which NGOs had enabled warlords and terrorists in numerous conflict areas in Africa in pursuit of their corporate interests, as documented by a brave Dutch reporter. (Gourevitch)

Zarembka has seen his share of these abuses. Two examples: first, in the capitals of Burundi and Rwanda, he photographed huge new mansions that were built specifically to be rented to foreign NGOs for thousands of US dollars per month, “clearly out of the range of any African except the elite,” Zarembka fumes.

More common, and equally insidious, is the widespread NGO practice of paying “sitting allowances”: “Many international NGOs pay ‘sitting allowances’ for people to attend meetings, seminars, workshops and other activities promoted by the NGOs. This might surprise you – people are paid to be involved in learning activities for their own benefit. Sometimes this pay is significant. . . . No wonder people want to attend and give glowing reports of how good the workshops were that day.” He notes that one of the Swahili terms for for these payments is “chai,” which as we have seen, informally means a “bribe.”

Zarembka and the African Great Lakes Initiative will have none of it. “It is AGLI’s policy not to pay any ‘sitting allowances,’” he insists. “Because of this, we are at total odds with the prevailing custom of of other NGOs . . . .”  (272) He notes that for some of his workshops, a few of the participants refuse to come, or leave when they learn they will not be paid. This does not trouble him. “[AGLI’s] workshops are voluntary and that is critical to their success,” he insists. “If people were paid, it would be an inducement that renders them no longer ‘voluntary.’ Do these other NGOs who pay sitting allowances think their activities are so unproductive that no one will come unless they are paid?”

Besides which, “If sitting allowances were given, we could not trust the positive evaluations we receive and the motivations for requests for more workshops.” Moreover, when payments are part of the deal, local recruiters often fill up workshops with family and cronies, and then demand kickbacks from participants. Zarembka admits that “our refusal to pay sitting allowances gives us a lot of problems. NGOs have spoiled the environment and we are trying to change that environment.”(273) And he’s not giving up.

There is much more to his indictment of NGO misbehavior, not least that too many come and go with the winds of the latest media-hyped disasters, often leaving local communities in the lurch, projects uncompleted, previous catastrophes only barely relieved. . . .

In the past year, David also had some sharp & revealing observations  about the Covid pandemic, racism, and its impact on countries like Kenya.  We’ll examine those in another post.



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